Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I'm Still Not Sure How I Feel About Novels With A Commentary Track: Annotated Chronicles

The Good: Well-written books, Interesting "commentary" with the annotations
The Bad: Strangely scholarly for a not really scholarly work.
The Basics: Interesting, but a tough sell for adults or those who already have the "Chronicles" books, the Annotated Chronicles provides a commentary on the three books with the original text.

I love DVD commentary tracks. In fact, I'm a huge fan of listening to DVD commentary tracks on films that I love and there have been one or two other movies I've actually sat through a commentary track for after despising the film just to see what the people involved thought they were doing. I also believe that living novelists have a responsibility to their fans to detail what they meant in their works as opposed to simply what they say in the works themselves. So, for example, for my novels, I have written essays both before I began each book, after I finished, after I revised and whenever things have occurred to me (I was able to note with some surprise, for example, that in Within These Walls, I seemed to be smarter than I remember consciously being by having Jennifer comforted by her lover the same way her mother comforted her as a young child).

So, it would seem like I would be a huge fan of something like The Annotated Chronicles, an omnibus compendium of the first three DragonLance novels complete with notes and "commentary" on the history within the story and in the making of the book. For the first time, I truly understand why one of my favorite websites - The Digital Bits - includes a program grade as well as a bonus feature grade on every DVD they rate. To cut to the chase, the DragonLance Trilogy begins with a bang and the books themselves would easily average out to an 8/10 rating. But the annotations in this version are average at best and it seems like a lot of work and information for a series that is not as scholarly as this edition seems to want readers to believe it is.

This is an omnibus edition that contains the "Chronicles" Trilogy, which was:
Dragons Of Autumn Twilight
Dragons Of Winter Night
Dragons Of Spring Dawning

For those unfamiliar with them, Dragons Of Autumn Twilight opens the trilogy and the series. As the result of a vow to come together after years apart, a small group of companions meets at the Inn Of The Last Home to discuss the changes in the world they have observed over their years apart. After the years of separation, they have made notes on the rising forces of evil in the world of Krynn and the companions are dismayed when one of their number - Kitiara - does not show, despite the vows that bind the members of the group. Tanis, a half-elf, half-human, leads the companions, despite his own deep insecurities. His friends are a diverse bunch: Raistlin Majere, a mage, who is accompanied by his physically powerful brother, Caramon, Flint Fireforge, a dwarf, Tasslehoff, a Kender (diminutive thief), and Sturm, a knight who has been disgraced. The companions are joined by two newcomers, travelers from the plains, a healer named Goldmoon and her partner Riverwind. Goldenmoon comes bearing an ancient staff that has the ability to heal people and she claims to be a cleric of one of the old, forgotten gods.

Unfortunately for the companions, the newcomers draw the attention of the local religious fanatics and an invading army of dragonmen (draconians) who are loyal to the forces of evil. Tanis decides to rescue Goldmoon and Riverwind and in the process the group flees, with a barmaid from the Inn across Krynn. Eager to alert the centers of power in the dwarven nations and realms of the Elves to the new threat represented by the draconians and the return of the malicious gods, Tanis and his band find themselves beset upon by evil forces while trying to alert the leaders who might prevent Krynn from falling into darkness. And no sooner does the group escape one dangerous situation than they find themselves face to face with an enemy army, evidence of the return of the old gods, and an actual dragon!

Dragons Of Autumn Twilight is a setup novel, establishing the world of Krynn and the essential main characters and supplemental characters for the franchise. Right off the bat, this differentiates itself from The Lord Of The Rings because the story is character-based, not plot based. In The Lord Of The Rings, there is a mission determined somewhat externally by people only peripherally involved in the bulk of the story. Elrond dictates that the One Ring must be destroyed and everyone sets out to doing that while trying to hold the continent together long enough for Frodo and Sam to succeed. In Dragons Of The Autumn Twilight, there is nothing so clear cut and the people the book is centered on are not the powerbrokers of the planet. They are just good people (well, most of them) who want to do right by their fellow citizens.

The result is a story where the heroes make choices that lead them to heroism, not some form of generic heroism based upon accomplishing a task or a birthright. This is not to say that one cannot be fans of both The Lord Of The Rings and DragonLance, but truth be told, the two main flaws in Tolkein's works are absent from this franchise, starting in Dragons Of Autumn Twilight: the writing style and the element of character.

In Dragons Of Winter Night, the Companions split into two groups to try to achieve their goals of saving Krynn. One group, led by the half-elf Tanis, follows the best character from the first novel (Raistlin, a mage) and his twin brother on a quest to find a mythical magical object called the Dragon Orb. It is rumored to be able to control dragons and through the course of the novel it becomes more apparent that it is like a narcotic.

The bulk of the novel is about the other group. Led by Laurana the elf (she's on the cover of the original version!) and Sturm, a sort of Knight, the group goes on a quest for the Dragon Lance, an object that can kill dragons. Actually a good amount of the novel is spent reconciling the "sort of" part of the knight. Sturm is one of the few characters you can read in literature (yes, all literature) and think, "Wow, this guy is truly principled, even noble."

Book 3 in the novel is the siege of the High Clerist's tower where Sturm and Laurana have to defend the tower and the fate of the world comes into the balance when the DragonLances are tested!

In Dragons Of Spring Dawning, Follows the first major battle between the heroes of Krynn and the dragon armies following the discovery and production of the DragonLances. Laurana the elf maiden and Tas deal with the death of one of their own at the hands of Kitiara, who as it turns out missed her appointment in the Fall because she was busy joining the dark side. Now a minion of evil, the love of Tanis's life captures the other woman he loves and prepares to use Laurana to open a portal that will allow the evil goddess Tahkisis to enter this plane of existence. Eager to warn Tanis and save Krynn, Flint and Tas race to Tanis's side.

Unfortunately, the plans Tanis and Raistlin have been working on to save Krynn have put the world on the brink of a full-scale war and Raistlin is acting more twitchy than usual. As the companions both prepare for an all-out war with the forces of evil and deal with another casualty from their group, Tanis succumbs to Kitiara and Raistlin abandons the cause to take on the leaders of the magical orders, threatening the whole planet!

Dragons Of Spring Dawning is the final volume of the beginning of the franchise, so it's a pretty safe bet that Krynn will not be destroyed by the entrance of the Goddess of evil in this volume and it's not ruining anything to point that out. In fact, this book manages to be quite the nail biter in that regard because well before the reader gets to that point, two of the principle characters are already dead and two look like they are headed over to the side of evil. Dragons Of Spring Dawning is quite adept at keeping the tension high and the variables well in play.

This leads us to character. "Chronicles" is full of characters and they are a diverse bunch. Flint Fireforge may well be a simple sage advisor to Tanis, who spends his time making quips at Tas, but he is written in such a way that he appears to be one who has a history and has a rich tale behind him where it makes sense that he has Tanis's unwavering support. Goldmoon and Riverwind might well be the least developed characters in the book, but they at least have a purpose: she is a woman of faith with a magic staff. They lend diversity to an already diverse novel by adding characters roughly analogous to the Native Americans to an otherwise European blend of characters.

Sturm Brightblade is a knight who has never been accepted by the order of knights he strives to be in, due to his low birthright. Sturm is one of those characters who immediately seems whitebread, but is actually a fascinating study in genuine heroism. He is a man who follows a strong moral code for the sake of being an honorable and decent guy. I like that. He's principled for the sake of principle and once one gets over that unflinching lack of corruptibility, there is something remarkable about reading the story of a character for whom the world is still very much black and white, good versus evil.

The reason Sturm's character works at all is because of Tanis and Raistlin. Tanis is half-elven and this gives Hickman and Weis the chance to do something seldom explored in fantasy novels and certainly underrepresented in literature targeted toward young adults, which is to explore race issues. Tanis is an interethnic symbol walking around Krynn despised by both sides and the metaphor works beautifully and is so thinly veiled that only the most dense or young readers will not understand it. Tanis struggles with being too different from the humans and being an outcast among his chosen people, the elves. That level of conflict informs many of his decisions and that works beautifully for the book!

But from the beginning, it was Raistlin who grabbed readers, especially me. He's a mage, powerful but clearly wounded by the magic he practices. His eyes have hourglass pupils as a result of a trial the order of mages put him through and he sees the decay in all things. He is neutral and has little care for wars or the fate of the masses. In many ways, he is an intellectual snob. Physically sickly, he is a genius when it comes to magic and herbal medicine and from the moment he enters the narrative, there is a complete and beautiful ambiguity about the character that makes the reader wonder just which way he will fall when the impending war comes.

Choices that Tanis, Sturm, Raistlin, and Tas make change the course of event on Krynn and this story is a first exploration into a much larger world, but in virtually every chapter there is an allusion to something that fleshes out Krynn and makes one more curious about the characters, the history of the world and the future of it. It's smart, asks deeper philosophical questions about the relationships between individuals and their religions, faith and honor and it's worth the time of anyone who likes a good fantasy novel. And truth be told, it's better than virtually any other literature targeted toward young adults and the surprising thing I'm rediscovering is with its emphasis on character just how enjoyable it can be for adults.

In the Annotated Chronicles there is a sidebar alongside the main text. This includes notes from Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman on everything from how the names were derived to pointing out key information the characters receive. Some of it is just insulting, like pointing out what readers should be getting as clues on characters who have secret importance, like Fizban. Pointing out the moment characters do things that later come out is something like the literary equivalent of audio commentary on DVDs pointing out something that the director makes clear on screen moments later or like when someone providing audio commentary just starts repeating dialogue or says, "Oh, wait, here's a good part coming up . . .!"

I'm not saying this is not interesting, but it is a bunch of overkill comments and notes, only half of which are actually providing new information or something that cannot be gotten anywhere else by simply reading closely. Ultimately, that's why I knocked this down into "average" territory. It's interesting, but too much of it is repetitive or pointless. Adult readers will not need this level of commentary on things that they are reading.

That said, I am recommending it because I can see how when I was in my teens I would have eaten this up. When "DragonLance" was (relatively) new and I was eating it all up, I could not get enough. As a result, something like this would have been a real treat, even though I was a careful reader even then. Those who like things spelled out for them will enjoy The Annotated Chronicles. Now, I could have used a separate volume that was just "The Making Of Chronicles," something like Weis and Hickman discussing the process independent of the text.

For other fantasy novel reviews, please check out my takes on:
The Fellowship Of The Ring
The Two Towers
The Return Of The King


For other book reviews, please click here for an organized index!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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